Tuesday, 22 September 2015

What did Brahmagupta do?

What did Brahmagupta do?

Have you heard of Brahmagupta? Perhaps. Have you heard of Aryabhata? Or Bhaskaracharya? Far more likely! Do you know what they did?

Let me take another approach. Have you heard of Isaac Newton? Surely. James Watt? Charles Darwin? The Wright brothers? Thomas Edison? Galileo? Pythagoras? Archimedes?

Ask a friend (or yourself) what these great people did. Most likely you will get a quick answer.

Newton – Gravity; Laws of Motion
James Watt – Steam Engine
Charles Darwin – Evolution
Wright brothers – Aeroplanes
Edison – Light bulb, phonograph

The average citizen of India, if he has some education, even upto the fifth standard, whether in English medium or other languages, will be able to associate the great scientists named above with their inventions or discoveries. If one asks what else they have done, though, only a few will know, even among college graduates.

With other famous people, gets a little harder. Actually a little vaguer.

Galileo – Telescope?
Pythagoras – his theorem, the hypotenuse, right triangles
Archimedes – water? Density?

These are somewhat vague, but at least you associate them with some of the achievements they are famous for. What did Galileo do with the telescope? Did he discover something? (Reminder: The helio centric theory was proved by Copernicus, not Galileo.) Did Pythagoras propose or prove only one theorem? What else did Archimedes do, before running naked in the streets?

Let me name a few more scientists. Louis Pasteur. Dmitri Mendeleev. Leonard Euler. Antoine Lavoisier. Alexander Humboldt. Fritz Haber. Nikola Tesla. Karl Benz. Nikolaus Otto. Emile Levassor. These names are less famous than the others mentioned earlier, even though their contributions are breathtaking. First, none of them is English or American; Indian education is biased towards the Anglo American world. They are French, German, Russian, Swiss, Serb. Marconi and Einstein are the only recognizable names among non-Anglo European scientists, to most people.

But most well educated people in India will categorize them or recognize their major achievements, at least of Pasteur and Mendeleev.

Now back to my original question.

What did Brahmagupta do?

Astronomy or Mathematics are inadequate answers. You would not answer Physics if when asked what Newton did, Biology for Darwin, or Electricity for Edison.

Aryabhata? Bhaskara? Varahamihira? Nilakantha?

The sad reality, is that most of us know nothing about what these Indian superstars accomplished, except very vague outlines. They are barely mentioned in our school text books; they are ignored in literature, both popular and scholarly; they are merely names to be proud of, not scientists whose work is worthy of study; or even basic awareness. And this would be true, not just of generally educated people, but even among most mathematicians and Sanskrit scholars. What a pity! This is neither a product of the Colonial System, nor deliberate Nehruvian antipathy. Perhaps a general apathy. A numbing lack of curiosity.

I wont answer the questions I have raised, in this essay - What did Brahmagupta do? Or Aryabhata? But this I will say : what they did is far easier to understand than the mathematics of Ramanujan, or the Raman Effect, or Evolution or the Steam engine.

Popular sources on the Internet, (Wikipedia, for example) and even general books on the subject, miss the wood for the trees. I have given a few lectures on Indian Astronomy, and I don’t think I got their accomplishments across. Just a general sense of awe and pride, waiting to be kindled. But easily satisfied with the vaguest phrases.

This essay is not a boast, more a lament. Five years ago, I did not know most of these names, or what they did. Today, I wonder why. This blog is to share the angst.

As a postscript, let me mention these names : Mohammad ibn Musa, al Khwarizmi, ibn Sina, al Hasan, Cai Lun, Shen Kuo. In India, these names will not ring a bell. We know the least about two great civilizations, our oldest neighbours, China and Iran.


  1. It is a great shame that the Indian school system does not teach children the scientific, technological and mathematical past of India - in a factual and non-worshipful way.

    1. All a parent needs to do is teach their children what their school doesn't teach them in the classroom. Since parents and teachers and ministers and bureaucrats and education committees don't know what the "scientific technological past of india" is, how can they teach them?

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